Stan Walker. Godot. Maris Crane. Rosaline. The Little Red-Haired Girl. Mrs. Columbo. Bunbury. Mort Guffman.

To the above list of talked-about-but-never-seen characters of stage and screen fame can now be added George Riley, a man whose impending death has all the onstage characters in Alan Ayckbourn’s seventy-fourth full-length play in a tizzy.

Life Of Riley (yes, George even figures in the play’s title) gets its United States Premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe just eight months after the Brits got their first look at it—and a delightful two hours of comedy it is.

As always in an Ayckbourn play, there is a gimmick of sorts, or two actually in this case. The first is, of course, the play’s unseen but not unsung hero. The second is its setting. Just as Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce takes place in three side-by-side bedrooms, all the action in Life Of Riley occurs in a quartet of gardens, occupying the four quadrants of the in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Middle-aged Colin (Colin McPhillamy) and Kathryn (Henny Russell) are in their elegant garden running lines for an upcoming community theater production of Ayckbourn’s Everything’s Relative when Colin lets slip that a patient of his has terminal cancer. Using her powers of detective reasoning, Kathryn quickly deduces that it is their longtime friend George, then rings up George’s best friend Jack (Ray Chambers) with the news. Naturally Jack can’t keep this a secret from his wife Tamsin (Dana Green), and when he and the Mrs. arrive for rehearsal soon after, Jack suggests that they offer George a part in the play, thereby giving him a reason to enjoy the last six months of his life. Meanwhile somewhere out in the English sticks, George’s estranged wife Monica (Nisi Sturgis) has taken up rural living with a widowed farmer named Simeon (David Bishins).

It doesn’t take long for a) jealousy to rear its head, b) heretofore secret past relationships to be revealed, and c) all three women to be making plans to accompany George on a vacation jaunt to Tenerife, leading the ladies to believe that he may have a last-ditch holiday à quatre on his mind. Not surprisingly, the men in these women’s lives are not amused.

For the audience, on the other hand, amusement is indeed the order of business in Ayckbourn’s next-to-latest hit comedy. (Yes, since Life Of Riley’s September World Premiere, Mr. Prolific has already gone and written and directed number seventy-five.) Admittedly, after the play’s absolutely hilarious opening scene which skewers amateur actors like never before, Act One does get a bit talky and drags a tad as intermission approaches. Fortunately, once the women have started comparing plans for a Canary Island vacation with soon-to-be dear departed George, there’s nary a dull or unfunny moment until the comedy’s surprisingly touching dénouement.

What is not at all surprising is the level of talent onstage and off at the Old Globe, beginning with Richard Seer, who directs with sparkle and flair. As for the actors assembled by Seer and casting director Samantha Barrie, they could hardly be better. With the help of dialect coach Jan Gist, Life Of Riley’s sextet of American thespians come across so British-to-the-core that they could almost get through customs without a passport. Not only that, but the specificity of their dialects reveals much about each character, from McPhillamy’s and Russell’s uppah-clahssiness to Green’s dropped h’s (which hint that former beautician Tamsin has married up) to Bishins’ folksy provincial accent for Simeon. All in all, the six thesps make for a fabulous bunch: McPhillamy’s fuddy-duddy Colin, Russell’s veddy proper Kathryn, Chambers’ philandering Jack, Green’s vampy Tamsin, Sturgis’s would-be country girl Monica, and Bishins’ man-of-few-words Simeon. High school senior Rebecca Gold completes the cast nicely in a last minute coda.

Robert Morgan’s in-the-round scenic design for Life Of Riley’s four-garden setting is quite splendid, each garden superbly detailed, and if the grass isn’t real, you could have fooled me. Morgan gets bonus points for some terrific costumes that tell you exactly who is who at first glance. Chris Rynne’s lighting design is both subtle and vivid, and Paul Peterson’s sound design is his usual excellent work. (Note the use of ‘80s rock as a symbol of George’s ever-presence, and listen for subtle barnyard sounds whenever we’re with Monica and Simeon.) Elizabeth Stephens is stage manager.

Though unlikely to achieve the same phenomenal success as Ayckbourn’s most-produced plays (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, and A Chorus of Disapproval to name just a few), Life Of Riley does exactly what it supposed to do—and what few playwrights do as well as Ayckbourn. It entertains…and it makes you want to come back for more. I’m already ready for Number 75!

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
–Steven Stanley
May 15, 2011
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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